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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Paul McCartney: Wild Life


1) Mumbo; 2) Bip Bop; 3) Love Is Strange; 4) Wild Life; 5) Some People Never Know; 6) I Am Your Singer; 7) Bip Bop Link; 8) Tomorrow; 9) Dear Friend; 10) Mumbo Link.

General verdict: Keep-it-simple unshackled insanity on parade — some great ideas marred by the crudeness of approach.

Time and time again, Paul has proven to the world that not only is he a perfectionist, but that the only working mode in which he gives his finest results is perfectionist mode. Every now and then, though, he still gets the urge to toss off something quick and dirty — you know, recapture that old rock'n'roll spirit, grab Lady Luck by the tail, make good on a passing electroshock of fleeting inspiration, that sort of stuff. Such was his dream in early 1969, when he tried to give The Beatles a jolt by reminding them of their Hamburg days. That one did not work out. But once Ram was completed, and working with Hugh McCracken, Denny Seiwell, and other musicians made him confident enough to try and put together a new band, the old dream was reinvigorated — and this time, there was nobody authoritative enough to dissuade him from the idea.

Wild Life was recorded in approximately one week's time, with five out of eight songs recorded in one take — sweet visions of Please Please Me probably haunting the man most of that time. Not counting Linda, the musicianship was provided by a rather minimalistic trio: Paul McCartney of Beatles fame on bass and everything else, Denny Laine of Moody Blues fame on guitars and something else, and Denny Seiwell of... Ram fame on drums and nothing else. Unfortunately, neither of the two Dennys could exactly replace John, George or, hell, even Ringo — and even if they could, the odds of producing another Please Please Me in 1971 would not be high.

Two bewildering things about Wild Life immediately come to attention. One, that even if it is the first album explicitly credited to «Wings», it actually sounds less like a band-type album than Ram — its bare-bones, underproduced nature places it closer to McCartney, even if it does reflect the results of four people working in close proximity to each other. Two, that it genuinely sounds as if Paul wrote everything here in about half an hour: most of the tracks are almost offensively short on musical ideas, often looping just one or two of them for four or five minutes, a far cry from those blessed days when minimal ideas would get adequately minimal representa­tion, as they did on the Abbey Road medley. Want it or not, the effect is starkly anti-climactic after Ram: in retrospect, we know that this was a misstep rather than a demise, but back in 1971, it may very well have looked to people that the Paul McCartney treasury of melodic nuggets had finally been exhausted.

It's not even as if those ideas are total crap. For instance, I like ʽBip Bopʼ — its sole little comic verse is harmless catchy fun, in the same way that something like ʽWild Honey Pieʼ was fun. But ʽWild Honey Pieʼ had the good sense of being fifty seconds long; ʽBip Bopʼ, having laid out its core musical joke in about the same time, drags on for four minutes without adding anything other than random sighs, moans, and distant background chatter to diversify the effect. Why does it do that? Just to fill out album space? More likely, this was simply a case of Paul and the boys casually jamming along, waiting for extra inspiration — and then convincing themselves that somewhere along the way, that inspiration might have come. Perhaps somebody, somehow, some­day will sense it. In the meantime, we'll just put it out as it is.

The really weird thing is, there is not a single truly bad song on Wild Life — but there is not a single song on Wild Life that was performed, arranged, and recorded precisely the way it should have been. Some of the tracks are in desperate need of overdubs; some require extra bridges, intros, or outros to work better; most require severe trimming. Adding insult to injury, Paul actually returned to Abbey Road Studios to produce the record — one can only hope that George Martin was away on vacation in the summer of 1971, or his heart might not have stood to witness this profanation of sacred Beatle values. Of course, this was not the first time that Paul came up with a disastrous decision (the Magical Mystery Tour movie?), but, arguably, it was the first time when the decision concerned the one thing that he used to be good at — recording music.

Side A of the album bears the brunt of the damage: in addition to ʽBip Bopʼ, there's ʽMumboʼ (four minutes of barely coherent jamming, with everyone giving the impression of being sloppy drunk — the worst thing about this is, they obviously weren't even sloppy drunk), the overlong cover of the Mickey & Sylvia / Buddy Holly oldie ʽLove Is Strangeʼ, and the even more overlong eco-rant of the title track. And they are all good! They all have something to cherish. ʽMumboʼ has that wonderful falsetto woooh! echoed by the organ chord; ʽBip Bopʼ is just as impossible to forget as "one two three four, can I have a little more"; ʽLove Is Strangeʼ is «adorkable» in its own fruity way and has one of the finest guitar solos ever played by Denny; the title track has soulful depth that is not even impeded by Paul overscreeching it. Yet in the long run, none of these songs are defensible against criticism — I rarely have the patience to trace them all the way to the end, as they typically run out of ideas midway through or earlier. (Yes, I ask myself the question "what's gonna happen to wild life?" from time to time, too; but repeating it twenty times in a row is not going to produce an answer, or even get people to start thinking about the answer twenty times as efficiently).

To redeem the record, one has to flip over to the second side, which is altogether more reasonable, though still subject to the same problems. The much underrated sleeping beauty of the record is there — ʽSome People Never Knowʼ is the best sample of classic McCartney melodic genius on Wild Life, hopelessly lost in the depths of this confused opus. A folksy pop ballad, it has got the ʽHere There And Everywhereʼ touch to it, admittedly a bit less magical, but do wait until he hits that middle eight section: the transition from the smooth falsetto "I'm only a person like you, love..." to the ever so slightly accusatory, but still loving "...and who in the world can be right all the right times?" makes my heart jump nine times out of ten. And later, once you think the band has already switched to go-to-fade-out jam mode, they suddenly dive into the bridge again, only now it is a wordless vocalise (the worded melody is nearly muted in the background), and the magic repeats itself with pure feeling. This is how you work out a masterpiece, and how, I think, all the other songs on the album should have been approached.

At least both ʽI Am Your Singerʼ and ʽTomorrowʼ refuse to share the main problem of their peers: they are both short and concise pop songs, the former a surprisingly melancholic love declaration (I sometimes think it might have been conceived as, you know, the blackbird's answer to ʽBlack­birdʼ: "someday when we're singing, we will fly away, going winging..."), and the latter a... dang, another surprisingly melancholic love declaration (I guess the weather was not so good in those July '71 days, after all).

The one song that even the haters usually acknowledge is ʽDear Friendʼ, Paul's somewhat oblique, at times accusatory, at times reconciliatory answer to Lennon's ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ — at least, that was how it seemed at the time, because in reality the song was written during the Ram ses­sions (in fact, Imagine came out already after the Wild Life sessions had been held). You don't need to go farther than the first thirty seconds of it — the rest is just repeat, sometimes with embellishments in the form of orchestral crescendos — but those thirty seconds are powerful, another great example of how Paul can crush the deepest strings with the simplest chords. Later on, Paul would say that the song was an attempt to reconnect with John — he must have either been fooling interviewers or fooling himself, because lines like "are you a fool, or is it true?" are quite a giveaway, and most importantly, that doom-laden final chord just spells out "it's over" better than any words can. Incidentally, this is the single most tragic — most devastating — ending to a Paul solo album, ever. Leave it to the man to lure us in with something as utterly stupid as ʽMumboʼ and leave us hanging out to dry with something as gloomy as ʽDear Friendʼ (if there ever were to be a music video to the song, it would probably have to feature Paul at the bar past closing time, all dim lights and manly sobs).

As you can tell, I have a real love-and-hate relationship with this record. It wants to work, it is unable to work, it works despite everything, it breaks down, it knocks its head against the wall... in the end, there just might be something to this raw, unshackled approach that we would never see again once the regular Wings aesthetics began to kick in around 1973. One thing that is for certain — the album still features plenty of McCartney genius, as much as McCartney himself is allowing to show from behind all the fake camaraderie. Another certain thing is that the whole enterprise was just a brief moment of insanity: Wings' very first singles, now available as bonus tracks on the album, were already a much more polished affair, be it the unexpected political escapade of ʽGive Ireland Back To The Irishʼ (catchy, but crude) or the «some people want to fill the world with nursery rhymes, what's wrong with that?» debacle of ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ (which, amusingly, rips off the chord sequence of Pink Floyd's ʽEchoesʼ for the post-verse flourish — guess we now know what Paul had been listening to in between recording, touring, and shearing sheep). Allegedly, Wild Life is just, well... a bit wild. It still holds a special place in my heart for that reason, even if I never listen to it for sheer pleasure in the same way I listen to Ram or (in a different way) to Band On The Run. Do not dismiss it right out of hand before giving it a fair chance.


  1. I'm in love with "Bip Bop". Sure, it's repetitive and simplistic, but the guitar on it sounds *sweet*. I love that sound. I can listen to in on repeat. Maybe because I play the guitar myself a little, and I know how it feels to just pick on this chords progression: you just never want to stop. Frankly, the words were probably tucked on at the last minute: it wouldn't be much worse off as an instrumental, in a "spaced out Chet Atkins having a little fun" way.

  2. Any special reason that this is filed under "Paul McCartney" and not "Wings"? Sure, McCartney wrote all of the songs, but that doesn't change that Wings was, in fact, a band.

  3. Ah, Wild Life. Talk about an inconspicuous start to Wings. You are right, though, when taken as a peak into Paul's creative process while he's still in the "outlining" stage, there is pleasure aplenty to be found here. And Some People Never Know may be a bit long but it really is just a terrific piece of work that no one outside of hardcore Macca fans (and music reviewers) has even heard of, let alone heard.

  4. I have to agree with the review. When I was doing a mixtape for the car of the Wings' songs, I had thought there will be very little songs from "Wild Life". Turns out I included all of them.
    It's a mediocre (for McCartney, that is) album, but with decend songs.
    I would just give more credit to the title track. I find the long ending quite powerful. This is one of these songs that get their power from "going on" - sth like "She's So Heavy".

  5. I adore "Love Is Strange" -- the musical arrangement and Paul's vocals. One of the times he sings "Like having money in the hand" he gets lower in his range than I've heard anywhere else, and it really works (at least for me).

    "Tomorrow," "Some People Never Know," and "Dear Friend" I also like quite a bit. Taken as a whole the album is pretty ramshackle, but I find it pretty enjoyable.

  6. Yes, this one is a misunderstood masterpiece, in my book. I understand why it's not held in as high regard as "Ram" or "Band on the Run," but it's not like it's SIGNIFICANTLY worse. I love this wild and jammy Paul, letting loose on vocals and guitar. And "Love is Strange" is such a radical revisioning of a classic...

    This might be peak Linda, too, when it comes to BGVs